On its face, the upcoming trial of Vernon Hershberger, which starts today, is about food and dairy licensing and the Wisconsin farmer’s refusal to seek out certain permits. Hershberger is accused of four criminal misdemeanors. The first three include failing to have a retail food establishment license, operating a dairy farm as a milk producer without a license, and operating a dairy plant without a license. The fourth accusation is that Hershberger violated a holding order from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in June 2010, when he cut the agency tape shuttering his farm store, and resumed serving his food club members.
While some of Hershberger’s supporters have wanted to see the trial turned into a debate over raw milk, the judge in the case, Guy Reynolds, reaffirmed the narrow focus on regulation when he ruled during a pretrial hearing Tuesday that issues related to raw milk can’t be introduced by either the prosecution or defense.
The technical legalities of the case, however, fail to convey the case’s national political importance. Other cases similar to Hershberger’s have sprouted around the country, from Maine to California, where owners of small farms are selling meat, raw dairy products, and other staples directly to consumers in search of wholesome food. The controversy, and attendant legal problems, stem from the fact that the farmers are increasingly selling their food via private contracts, outside the regulatory system of state and local licenses and inspections that govern public food sales.
Federal and state regulators have responded by seeking legal sanctions against farmers in Maine, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and California, as well as in Wisconsin. These sanctions include injunctions, fines, and even possible prison time. Food sold by unlicensed and uninspected food is potentially dangerous, say the regulators, since it can carry pathogens like Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E.coli O157:H7, leading to mild or even serious illness.
While these cases are testing the limits of food regulation, they raise deeper and more fundamental questions. Why would hard-working, normally law-abiding farmers be teaming with educated urban and suburban consumers to flaunt licensing and permitting regulations and statutes that have held sway for decades? Why would parents, who want only the best for their children, be seeking out food that regulators say could be dangerous?
Indeed, if you talk to individuals who belong to Hershberger’s food club, many of them from the Madison, WI, area, they talk about food choices and health rather than permits and licenses. Jenny DeLoney, a Madison, WI, mother of three young children., says she buys food from Hershberger because she wants food from animals that are treated humanely, allowed to roam on the pasture. “I really want food that is full of nutrients and the animals to be happy and content.”
Jennifer Bell, a Madison mother of two children, has been buying eggs, beef, honey, and raw milk from Hershberger for the last three years. “I’ve seen a lot of improvements in my digestive system” during that time, she says. Her son’s stomachaches have disappeared as well. She believes Hershberger’s farm-raised food is more wholesome and nutritious than mass-produced food in the supermarkets, and that her and her family’s health improvements are testimony to that reality.
Another member, Joy Martinson of Mt. Horeb, says the fact that her health has improved has reinforced her sense that she should have a choice in her food: “I am an informed consumer and I choose to obtain healthy food directly from the farmer without government intervention.”
Hershberger himself talks about “the fundamental right of farmers and consumers to engage in peaceful, private, mutually consenting agreements for food.”
These individuals are clearly interpreting “health” and “safety” differently than the regulators. The consumers have seen such things as videos of downer cows being prodded into slaughterhouses and chickens so crammed into coops they can barely breathe. They have seen the statistics showing that eight percent of children today have allergies and nine percent have asthma. To these individuals, safety is much more than the single-minded focus regulators place on pathogens. To many of them, who are parents, safety means not only food free of pathogens, but food free of pesticides, antibiotic residues, genetically modified (GMO) ingredients, and excessive processing.
Some consumers are going further than claiming contract rights—they are pushing their towns and cities to legitimize private farmer-consumer arrangements. In Maine, residents of nine coastal towns have convinced town meetings to pass so-called “food sovereignty” ordinances that legalize unregulated food sales; towns in other states, including Massachusetts and Vermont, have passed similar ordinances.
The new legal offensive hasn’t gone over well with regulators. Maine’s Department of Agriculture filed suit against a two-cow farmer, Dan Brown, in one of the food-sovereignty towns, Blue Hill, seeking fines and, in effect, to invalidate the ordinances. A state judge in late April sided with the state, issuing an injunction barring Brown from continuing his unregulated food sales, and in effect invalidating the Blue Hill ordinance. Brown is planning an appeal.
At its heart, this is a struggle over a steady erosion of confidence in the integrity of our industrial food system, which has been hit by disturbing disclosures seemingly on a weekly basis. Members of Congress and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have in recent weeks escalated warnings about the growing danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens emerging from farm animals, which consume about 80 per cent of all antibiotics in the U.S. The Atlantic reported last summer that medical specialists are seeing a spike in women with urinary tract infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, likely transmitted by chicken meat. Voters in a number of states have mobilized to push for laws requiring labeling of foods for the presence of GMO ingredients.
Eroding confidence in the food system is no small matter. It threatens large corporations in serious ways if long-established food brands come under prolonged and severe public questioning. It threatens economic performance if foods deemed “safe” become scarcer, and thus more expensive. And it is potentially explosive politically if too many people lose confidence in the competence and expertise of the food regulators, and encourages folks to seek private solutions.
The battle seems almost certain to intensify, as more farmers like Hershberger hook up with consumers for private food sales and regulators hunker down to deter the end run around existing regulatory protocols. No matter what the jury’s decision in this case, we will hopefully see the emergence of a new broader view and discussion about the meaning of food safety.© Food Safety News